Slavery is a weed that grows on every soil. -Edmund Burke
It is a biblical command for the Jewish people to remember the slavery we endured in Egypt and the subsequent miraculous exodus from the bondage of Egypt. Though history has shown that there are different degrees of slavery, the Jewish tradition is that Egyptian slavery was particularly cruel.
Based on that tradition, Egyptian slavery has been depicted widely in both books and film to the extent that we can readily imagine our ancestors plodding in the mud pits, under the harsh Egyptian sun, and the harsher taskmaster’s whip, as permanent prisoners of a tyrannical regime.
However, the Bechor Shor on Exodus 1:11 adds some nuance to the terms of enslavement that may not have been apparent to us. He explains that the enslavement was not constant but rather lasted for a few months at a time. He picks up on the parallel description of the much later “enslavement” which King Solomon decreed for the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. King Solomon “taxed” the people, taking 30,000 men who would work for the king for a month, and then they would return home for two months, though we have no record that it was a particularly harsh situation for the conscripted men.
In a related vein, the Bechor Shor explains, the Egyptians forced the Jews into hard labor for several months at a time, and then let them go home to their families for a period, so they can support their own households until they were forced into hard labor again for a number of months. This is a cycle that continued for the long decades of Egyptian bondage. In the Egyptian case, even though the Jewish slaves had some “time off” it was still an extremely oppressive and dispiriting situation.
May we be cautious of the servitudes we get ourselves into – even if they’re not full-time.
In honor of our nephew, Mordechai Tzvi Kahen’s Bar-Mitzvah. Mazal Tov!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Much has been written, spoken, videoed and shared about the coronavirus pandemic we are all living through. I beg those who for whatever reason are still not taking it seriously, to please take all the requested precautions seriously. There is a natural tendency to think “it won’t happen to me.” I pray that it won’t, but the growing circle of our friends and acquaintances who have been struck by this disease is proving the foolishness of thinking anyone is more impervious than others to the disease that has run rampant around the globe. And if you have less concern for your own safety, at least please be mindful of others.
However, to the other end of the spectrum, to those who are living in dread and fear, I beg you to continue to take the requested precautions seriously, but to also be cognizant of your mental health. It is counterproductive to be so fearful that it affects your health, your wellbeing and that of those around you. Reach out. Talk to someone whom you trust or someone you think can give you the needed emotional support we all need, especially now. There is no shame in doing so.
It is indeed a time of global havoc. Not just health-wise, but also economic. Most of us have not seen such widespread dislocation in our lives. Many are on the front-line, saving lives from this invisible enemy. Many are supporting that effort. Many are wondering how they will survive the economic turmoil. Many are suffering in isolation; many because they are alone; many because they aren’t. The turmoil, pain, and despair are real.
Many platitudes can be given about being strong, about having faith, about this being an opportunity for growth. I believe in them. However, I also know that they will fall on deaf ears for those in the grip of fear. For those who don’t know where their next meal will come from. For those millions of people globally who are now unemployed and have no idea how they will generate income. I don’t know the answers. And that brings me to Pesach.
Our ancestors, more than 3,300 years ago, faced tremendous uncertainty. Others have already written about the parallels to the deadly plague of the firstborns which forced the Jews to remain locked in their homes on Pesach night. I want to focus on the uncertainties they faced. There was a massive shift in the world order occurring in those days. The mightiest empire on Earth, the powerful, centuries-strong Egyptian empire was ravaged by plagues. The Jewish people, a slave caste, was on the brink of not just freedom, but of being cut off from the only source of sustenance and employment they had known for generations. They were about to leave the only homes and possessions they knew. They were to follow Moses into the unknown, into the harsh, lifeless desert, with only the command of an unknowable God to back up the claims of His first prophet.
Did they not have reason to fear? Did they not have reason to distrust Moses and His invisible God? Did they not have a reason for cynicism? They did. However, we are the descendants of those who believed. We are the descendants of those who took a leap of faith. We are the descendants of those who had the courage, the strength, the spiritual drive to step into the unknown; to believe in an all-powerful God and His prophet; to believe in the legacy of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; to believe in the ancient promises, the divine covenant between God and our patriarchs. We believed. It is that unshakeable belief that has sustained our people through the most pernicious and devastating horrors humanity could inflict on us for over three millennia. We persevere. We stand, even with a sense of triumph. The triumph of being on the side of eternity.
We are an ancient people. We have seen empires rise and fall. We have seen civilizations built, destroyed and rebuilt. We have experienced and survived war, famine, wild beasts and plague. We can handle this. We shall overcome.
May this Seder, whether we are doing it alone, on our own, in smaller or different circumstances than we’re used to, be a meaningful Seder. May it be a reaffirmation of our unbreakable connection to our past Exodus; may it be a signal of our upcoming Exodus. May it signify our freedom. Our freedom from fear, our freedom from not just the microscopic plague that ails humanity but also the spiritual plagues that have infected our society. When we eat the Matza, that long-lasting poor man’s bread, may it be more heartfelt. When we drink the four cups of wine, symbolizing salvation, may we do so with greater significance. When we invite Elijah the Prophet to our home, may it be with greater emotion. And when we pray and sing to celebrate all together in a rebuilt Jerusalem next year, may we really mean it.
Wishing you and your loved ones a safe, joyous and inspiring Pesach.
Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,
Correction on last week’s post: my dear friend, Rabbi Gad Dishi, pointed out that my interpretation of last week’s Meshech Chochma was not as accurate as possible. I translated the term “minim” as ancient atheists and understood the Meshech Chochma to be referring to people at the time of the Temple. Rabbi Dishi correctly pointed out that the Meshech Chochma appears to be referring to post-Temple Christians and their Eucharist service. However, the more accurate translation doesn’t change the gist or message of what I wrote.
You don’t raise heroes, you raise sons. And if you treat them like sons, they’ll turn out to be heroes, even if it’s just in your own eyes. -Walter Schirra Sr.
Before Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God, he tells the people of Israel that he’s leaving Aaron and Hur in charge. However, we never hear about Hur ever again. The Midrash says that Hur rejected the people’s request to construct the Golden Calf, and in their rage, they killed him. Aaron, understanding that he would be the next victim, and in an effort to prevent more bloodshed (his own), gave in to the request and made them the infamous Golden Calf.
When things eventually calm down, God chooses Hur’s grandson, Betzalel, as the main architect and designer of the Tabernacle, with the exclusive task of personally making the holiest piece, the Ark of the Covenant.
What is highly unusual about the Ark, and which likely raised eyebrows initially as it does in a sense to this day, is that God ordered that the Ark cover would have not only one but two figures, two little idols of cherubs facing each other.
How could it be that the same God who shows such abhorrence to graven images, who was ready to wipe out the entire nation of Israel because of their worship of the Golden Calf, could command the construction of figures to be placed on the holiest object, an object which symbolizes his most concentrated presence on earth?
There are multiple answers the rabbinic commentators provide to the question and I’ve given some of their answers in previous years (see Vayakel archive). However, according to the Meshech Chochma on Exodus 37:1, whatever the rationale, that Ark and those cherubs needed to be fashioned with the utmost purity of purpose, without any hint whatsoever of idolatrous intention.
That, according to him, is one of the reasons why Betzalel was such a perfect choice for the job. His grandfather, Hur, had fought, resisted and gave his life in the struggle against idolatry. By his upbringing and nature, Betzalel would have an abhorrence to idolatry. He would bring a complete purity of purpose in the creation of the Ark and its accompanying images, without a sliver of thought, without a notion of idolatry.
Hur’s heroic sacrifice helped form his grandson’s character. That grandson becomes a partner with God in the creation of the holiest items on earth.
May we see them returned, to the rebuilt Temple, speedily and in our days.
To all those on the front line of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every man is an omnibus in which his ancestors ride. -Oliver Wendell Holmes
This week’s Torah reading contains the famous episode of the Golden Calf. Moses had gone up Mount Sinai to receive the Law from God. After forty days and nights, the people of Israel became anxious, and feeling leaderless, demanded of Aaron, Moses’ brother, that he make an idol for them. Aaron grudgingly does so.
The next morning the people of Israel worship the Golden Calf. They do this at the foot of Mount Sinai, forty days after having heard the voice of God, three months after having been miraculously liberated from Egypt. God is understandably furious (whatever that means theologically). God is ready to destroy the nation of Israel. He informs Moses of his plan to wipe out all of Israel and start over again with Moses as the Patriarch of a new nation that would ostensibly remain loyal and steadfast in their devotion to God.
This is where Moses steps in. He prays to God. His prayer is so strong, so sharp, so convincing, that he somehow gets God to stay His wrath. (Parts of his prayer are used in our liturgies to this day).
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 32:8 digs a little deeper and wonders as to what gave Moses the insight, the clarity and the wisdom to articulate such an effective prayer and thereby save the entire nation of Israel.
He answers based on the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 32a) which says that Moses prayed until he felt “fire in his bones.” The Meshech Chochma details that the reference to “fire in his bones” is that Moses prayed to God for forgiveness for Israel about the Golden Calf until he felt in his bones that he also had the same fault. Only when Moses reached that point of understanding and identification with the sin of Israel, was he able to achieve forgiveness for Israel.
What aspect of the sin was in Moses’ “bones?” The Talmud (Tractate Niddah 31a) states that a characteristic that a father bequeaths to his son is his bones. The Midrash based on the Book of Judges tells us that Moses’ grandson Yehonatan was guilty of worshipping idols. That gave Moses the opening to say to God: “God, you want to make a new nation from me? In my family, I will also have this fault of idol worship.”
So Moses’ understanding and identification with his future grandson’s idolatry somehow saved the nation of Israel from being punished for that same crime.
May we identify with our progeny, and they with us.
A child who is allowed to be disrespectful to his parents will not have true respect for anyone. -Billy Graham
The Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin 31a) tells the unusual case where one of the twelve precious stones of the High Priest’s breastplate fell out and was lost. The sages needed to find a replacement for this rare and valuable stone. They found such a stone by a non-Jew in Ashkelon by the name of Dama son of Netina. The sages approached Dama with a great sense of urgency:
“I’d love to sell you the stone,” Dama says, “but the key to my safe is under my father’s pillow. He’s currently sleeping and I won’t wake him up, even for the generous sum that you’re offering.”
The sages leave and presumably find another stone elsewhere. Dama’s great care and respect for his father lost him a tremendous business deal.
God, however, did not forget Dama’s respect for his father. The following year, when the sages found themselves in need of a Red Heifer (a rare and valuable animal required for a vital purification ritual in Temple times), it turned out that Dama was the only one that had one in his herd. The sages found themselves at Dama’s door once again, and Dama knew that he could command an exorbitant price for the Red Heifer due to the circumstance of him having the only one at the time. However, Dama contented himself with charging the amount that he would have gotten for the precious stone he didn’t sell the year before. Thus, God made sure Dama didn’t lose in the end because of his great respect for his father and indeed, Dama’s name has since stood for centuries as a paragon of parental respect.
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 28:9, where we have the listing of the different precious stones of the High Priest’s breastplate, points out a biblical link to Dama’s story. The stone that went missing in Dama’s story was the Yashphe, the stone that represented the Tribe of Benjamin. Of all of Jacob’s sons, Benjamin was the only one who hadn’t caused his father grief and showed the utmost respect to Jacob (ten of the brothers participated in the sale of Joseph to Egypt – perhaps the biggest anguish in Jacob’s life; and according to the Midrash, in a fashion, Joseph himself was a party to the conspiracy, by remaining quiet about it afterward).
It was therefore appropriate, that the son who demonstrated the greatest respect to his father would merit that God’s concentrated presence, via the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, would reside in his tribal allotment. We find that throughout the centuries of movements of the Tabernacle, it always remained within the tribal portion of Benjamin and the final address of the Ark, in the permanent structure of the Temple, also fell in the portion of Benjamin.
May we always demonstrate proper respect for our parents.
Man is a creation of desire, not a creation of need. -Gaston Bachelard
After the historic divine revelation at Mount Sinai, God commands Moses to build a Sanctuary, the Tabernacle. The Torah provides extreme detail as to the composition, construction, and measurements of the inner components of the Tabernacle as well as to its structural elements.
The central and most famous component of the Tabernacle is the Ark of the Covenant, where the two tablets containing the newly received Ten Commandments were stored. (It is not, contrary to popular belief, being held in a US government warehouse, after being rescued from the Nazis by Indiana Jones…).
A curious design feature of the Ark is that it has two poles for carrying it. Well, that’s not the curious part. The curious part is that there is an explicit command that those two poles may never be removed from the Ark, even when there is no longer a need for them and nobody is carrying the Ark.
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 25:11-18 learns a deep lesson as to the necessity of permanently leaving the carrying poles in an Ark that is not being carried.
He explains that we misunderstand the role of the poles and by extension, God’s role and relationship to us.
The poles are not there to carry the Ark. The Ark, in some metaphysical fashion which we don’t understand but that the Talmud verifies (Tractate Sotah 35a), carries itself. In fact, not only does the Ark carry itself, but it actually carries the people who think they’re carrying the Ark.
To support his argument further, the Meshech Chochma brings the example of the second most famous component of the Tabernacle, the Candelabrum, the Menorah. According to Maimonides, the Menorah was lit not only at night but also during the day. Why light the scarce and precious olive oil during the day when there is no need for illumination? The Meshech Chochma explains that it comes to make the same point. God doesn’t need the light; not at night and not during the day. By lighting the Menorah during the day, the obvious lack of a practical physical purpose demonstrates that God doesn’t need it. The same point is made by the poles. The Ark doesn’t need the poles, and by having them permanently attached, even when at rest, it further demonstrates that at a deeper, fundamental level, they are not really needed.
Ultimately, these physical examples inform our own relationship with and service to God. God doesn’t need it. God manages and will manage just fine without us. However, He wants us. He does want a relationship with us. He does want us to reach out to Him. He does want us to connect. Not because He needs us, but rather, because He wants us.
The study of crime begins with the knowledge of oneself. All that you despise, all that you loathe, all that you reject, all that you condemn and seek to convert by punishment springs from you. -Henry Miller
In the midst of a recital of numerous civil laws and capital offenses, the Torah adds an unusual phrase:
When a man schemes against another and kills him treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar to be put to death. -Exodus 21:14
The Meshech Chochma wonders as to the seemingly superfluous line of “treacherously, you shall take him from My very altar.” Anyone who kills someone else merits the death penalty. Why the extra verbiage in a text that we know conserves every word possible?
The Meshech Chochma connects the intent of the murderer of the above verse with two other personalities that were presumed to have murder on their minds: Pharaoh from the time of Abraham, and Avimelech, King of Grar. Abraham suspected and feared that both of these monarchs would have killed him to get his beautiful wife Sarah when he visited their domains. We are told their stories in the Book of Genesis, of how Abraham and Sarah pretended to be brother and sister, which led each of the monarchs to take Sarah for themselves until God miraculously intervenes in each case and forces the potentially murderous monarch to return Sarah to Abraham. It seems that had Abraham and Sarah revealed that they were married, it would have been likely that Abraham would have been killed in order to make Sarah “available” for the monarchs.
The Meshech Chochma however, connects our verse with another creature that was named “treacherous,” namely, the snake in the Garden of Eden. The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sotah 9b) presents the Midrash which states that the conniving snake desired Eve and plotted to kill Adam to get her, (hence getting them to eat from the forbidden fruit, which would trigger Adam’s death).
The Meshech Chochma goes further and states that the likely culprit of such adulterous thoughts and murderous activity would be none other than a Kohen! That would explain the need to take him away from the altar – the Kohens are the ones who are serving God at the altar. However, there are additional reasons to make the Kohen a particularly apt suspect:
Kohens are prohibited from marrying a divorcee. Therefore, the only way they could permissibly marry a married woman whom they desired would be to kill the husband. All non-Kohens could wait for a non-lethal divorce.
Kohens, as Temple servants, would come into frequent contact with women who brought their various sacrifices to the Temple. The frequent contact could lead them to murderous thoughts to separate these women from their living husbands.
May we be spared from treacherous thoughts and treacherous people.
To all of the Kohens in my life. They are wonderful, upstanding and inspirational people.
Ohhh! You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! Melting! – Wicked Witch of the West
In this week’s Torah reading, we are presented with the famous Ten Commandments. The fourth one reads as follows:
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
The Meshech Chochma wonders as to why there would be extra, special attention drawn to the sea. Why would it say, “heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them?” Why specifically is the phrase “all that is in them,” added to the sea, and not to heaven or earth?
He answers that there appears to have been an ancient belief that the subject of idol worship had power on the earth, but not on the sea and that those idolaters were willing to admit that God had exclusive domain over the seas. These idolaters admitted that their “gods” had no dominion over the sea or even over water. These beliefs translated into a practical effect: that the mystical sorcerous powers that these idolaters possessed through the worship of their “deities” could be nullified by water.
The Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin 67b) has an entire discussion about the use of sorcery and demons and concludes that it was normal practice in ancient Egypt to test any possible sorcerous spells with water. There is a story of the sage Zeiri who was sold a donkey in Alexandria. Suspecting foul play, he watered the donkey and it was revealed to be just a wooden plank. (He got a refund for his purchase).
In another case, Yannai arrived at an inn and asked for water. He was given water mixed with flour and noticed the woman innkeeper’s lips moving. Suspicious, Yannai spilled some of the water on the ground and it turned promptly into scorpions. Having evidence that they meant him harm, he cast his own spell and had the woman drink from the cup. She turned into a donkey which he proceeded to ride into the marketplace until a friend of hers released her from the sorcery.
I don’t know if L. Frank Baum (author of The Wizard of Oz) was familiar with these Talmudic stories or the Jewish understanding that water could nullify magic, but it’s certainly a fascinating possibility!
The Meshech Chochma concludes that the purpose of emphasizing God as the creator of the sea and all that’s in it, is to underline the fact, that just as God has absolute dominion over the oceans and all that is in it, so too, He has complete dominion over the heavens and the earth as well.
May we stay clear of any dark arts and enjoy the natural magic of creation.
Where there is great love there are always miracles. -Willa Cather
There is a well-known Midrash that has the angels standing by God’s side as He famously splits the Sea for the Children of Israel while at the same time He drowns the pursuing Egyptian army:
“God,” the angels asked, “how can you spare the Hebrews and kill the Egyptians? These are idol worshipers and these are idol worshipers!”
As we know, idol worship is among the most severe sins in the Torah, punishable by death, so the angels’ question is entirely reasonable.
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 14:29 states that idolatry is indeed quite severe, especially as compared to such sins as infighting, gossip, slander or even theft, none of which carry the death penalty. Nonetheless, he indicates that the divine judgment is reversed when it comes to “group” sin, based on the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Peah 4b).
It is true that if an individual commits idolatry, he is deserving of the death penalty, while if he commits one of the “lesser” sins, his punishment (if any) is less severe. However, according to the Meshech Chochma and the Jerusalem Talmud, the tables are turned when we are talking about the entire people of Israel. He brings two examples: In the times of King David, the population was relatively pious, faithfully worshipping God and correctly averting idolatry. However, because the people were talebearers, God would strike the Jewish people down in their wars.
On the other hand, In the times of King Ahav, who leads one of the most idolatrous generations ever, there were no talebearers, and as a result, they emerged victorious and unscathed from their battles. The lesson being, that a community that is kind to each other, that does not bear tales about each other, even if they are idolaters like the generation of Ahav, not only are they not punished, but they merit salvation and victory in their wars. But even a generation of righteous people like those in the time of King David, if they don’t look out for each other, God’s wrath is not far behind.
Therein lies the answer to the angels’ question about the Jewish people at the splitting of the Sea. Even though they were idol worshippers, they behaved well towards one another and that merited not only salvation but outright miracles.
May we ever be deserving of miracles.
To the complete and rapid recovery of all those stricken by the coronavirus epidemic.
Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you what you are. -John Ruskin
On the eve of the exodus of the Jewish people from the bondage of Egypt, on the night that would forever be known as the beginning of Pesach (Passover), the proto-nation of Israel is commanded by God to take a lamb (what would become the Pascual Lamb), slaughter it, serve it to their families and uniquely enough, smear the blood on their doorposts as a sign. God, recognizing the sign (or more likely the act of identification with the Jewish people and God’s command) would not kill the firstborns in those homes but would go on to kill the Egyptian firstborns in the tenth and final plague that He brought upon Egypt.
The Meshech Chochma on Exodus 12:21 connects this account of sacrifice and obedience to God to a much deeper significance as to how to tackle and control both our physical desires as well as our erroneous notions.
He goes on to quote an unusual line from the Talmud that reads as follows:
Rav said: The cry that one says to lead an ox is “hen hen.” The cry to lead a lion is “zeh zeh.” The cry to lead a camel is “da da.” The cry to laborers using ropes to pull a ship along a river is “heleni, hayya, hela, vehilook, hulya.” -Tractate Pesachim 112b
The Meshech Chochma explains that when one wants to lead an animal, or in our case wants to break an animalistic desire, what is needed is one line, one dictum to be repeated over and over. He suggests for example repeatedly saying the dictum from Chapter of our Fathers (Pirkei Avot 4:21): “Envy, lust and the desire for honor take a man out of the world.” Regular repetition is the best way to break our physical, animalistic habits and desires.
However, to change ones thoughts, notions and philosophies requires a more subtle approach. It cannot be altered by brute force of repetition. It requires a variety of arguments (as in the variety of words used for the laborers). It needs to be tackled by different angles until the combination of inputs succeeds in turning a person away from failed or mistaken ideas and paths and back to the ways of reason, of wisdom and good sense.
May we find both the direct strategies to break our negative desires and the more nuanced arguments to keep us on a straight intellectual path.